The Compassion of Jesus

To think like Christ is to have Jesus’ relational attitude toward his disciples. His attitude was beautifully expressed to me on a tour through Sleepy Hollow Village on the Hudson River. Our guide’s only instruction was, “Please be gentle with the lambs. They won’t come to you if you frighten them.”

When Jesus’ eyes scanned the streets and hillsides, he felt compassion because the people were leaderless. He wept over Jerusalem. His words were not full of blaming and shaming, castigating and moralizing, accusing and guilt-inducing, ridiculing and belittling, threatening and bribing, evaluating and labeling. His mind was constantly inhabited by God’s forgiveness. He took the initiative in seeking out sinners and justified his incredible ease and familiarity with them through the parables of divine mercy. The woman caught in adultery was not even asked if she was sorry. He did not demand a firm purpose of amendment. He did not lecture her on the harsh consequences of future infidelity. He saw her dignity as a human being destroyed by the self-righteous Pharisees. After reminding them of their solidarity in her sinfulness, he looked at the woman, loved her, forgave her, and told her not to sin anymore.

“Please be gentle with the lambs. They won’t come to you if you frighten them.”

The French psychologist Marc Oraison writes, “To be loved is to be looked at in such a manner that the reality of recognition is disclosed.” A Christian who doesn’t merely see but looks at another communicates to that person that he is being recognized as a human being in an impersonal world of objects, as someone and not something. If this simple psychological reality, difficult and demanding as it is, were actualized in human relationships, perhaps 98% of obstacles to living like Jesus would be eliminated. For this in the very foundation of justice: the ability to recognize the other as a human being with the sign of the Lamb glowing on his brow.

The mere purchase of a postage stamp or a load of groceries at the supermarket can occasion an exchange of glances between clerk and customer capable of transforming a routine gesture into a true human encounter that is mutually ennobling. Words are unnecessary in the interaction for the Christian who knows the fundamental secret of Jesus in relation to his disciples: his sovereign respect for their dignity. They are people, not toys, functions, or occasions for personal compensation. In Luke’s account of the Passion, he notes that after Peter’s third denial of Jesus,”the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61). In that look, the reality of recognition is disclosed. Peter knows that no one has ever loved him as Jesus does. The man whom he has confessed as Christ, the Son of the living God, looks into his eyes, see the transparent terror there, watches him act out the dreadful drama of his security addiction, and loves him.

The love of Jesus for Peter lay in his complete and unconditional acceptance of him. We who so automatically place conditions on our love (“If you really loved me you would”) fail to see that this is an exchange, not unconditional love. (We tack on one of our addictions to finish the sentence.)

In Jesus’ reaction to Peter we see that no man was ever freer of pressures, conventions, or addictions. Jesus was so liberated from the dominating barrage of desir es, demands, expectations, needs, and inflexible emotional programming that he could accept the unacceptable. He did not have to resort to screams, vicious attacks, or undue threats. He communicated his deepest feelings to Peter by a look. And that look transformed and  re-created Peter: “He went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).

Compassion means that when you empathize with the predicament of another person, you send out the signal, “Yes, I know. I’ve been there too.” You experience the situation from that person’s position. To be compassionate is to understand the conflicts other people have created in themselves without getting caught up in their poignant drama; you realize your compassion will be most effective if you stay centered in loving acceptance. As Jesus saw Peter playing out his addiction, and suffering because of it, he remained profoundly attuned to the humanity and dignity of the man. His transparent look imbued with God’s forgiveness not only brought Peter to tears but enabled him to continue his journey onward and upward into a richer life with Christ.

A few days later the Risen Jesus would say to the same man: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you to where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:18-19). This time there was no denial or complaint. Peter accepted what had been previously  unacceptable. Years later this same man would write: “Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). In the light of his own painful growth, he tells the Gentile Christians, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).

Peter’s betrayal of the Master, like so many of our own moral relapses and refusals to walk with the Lord, was not a terminal failure but an occasion for painful personal growth into the person God intended he be. Is it unrealistic to assume that years later Peter praised God for the servant girl who turned him into a sniveling coward in Caiphas’ courtyard?

Jesus was not in the business of reinforcing negative self-concepts. “The bruised reed he will not crush; the smoldering wick he will not quench” (Matthew 12:20). He was merciless only with those who showed contempt for human dignity; he had no compassion for those who laid intolerable burdens on the back of others and refused to carry them themselves. He unmasked the illusions and superficial good intention of the Pharisees for what they were and called them hypocrites, “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). He had no mercy for those who showed no mercy and an utter lack of compassion for the uncompassionate.

To live and think as Jesus did is to discover the sincerity, goodness, and truth often hidden behind the gross, coarse exteriors of our fellow human beings. It is to see the good in others that they don’t see in themselves and to affirm this good in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. It is not a blind optimism that ignores the reality of evil but a perspective that acknowledges the good so repeatedly and so insistently that the wayward must eventually respond in agreement.

In the man Jesus, the mind of God becomes transparent. There is nothing of self to be seen, only the unconditional love of God. Jesus lays bare the ground of man’s being in his encounter with Peter in the courtyard.

The axis of the Christian moral revolution is love (Jesus called it the sign by which the disciples would be recognized). The danger lurks in our subtle attempts to minimize, rationalize, and justify our moderation in this regard. Turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, offering no resistance to injury, being reconciled with one another, and forgiving seventy times seven times are not arbitrary whims of the Savior. He did not preface the Sermon on the Mount with, “it would be nice if” His “new” commandment structures the new covenant in his blood. So central is the precept of love that Paul called it the fulfillment of the Law.

“Reason demands moderation in love as in all things: faith destroys moderation here,” writes John McKenzie. “Faith tolerates a moderate love of one’s fellow man no more than it tolerates a moderate love between God and man.” The commandment of love is the entire Christian moral code. Thomas Merton stated that a “good” Christian who harbors hatred in his heart toward any person or ethnic group is objectively an apostate from the Christian faith.

This excerpt, from The Importance of Being Foolish (copyright 2005), appears by kind permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

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